"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Peter, Paul, and the Pope's fashion statement

Today is the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, who were martyred in Rome together. The Church of Rome still "has the bones"--a fact whose providential signifcance is often unappreciated. I do not refer merely to the claim of the popes to have inherited Peter's authority as leader of the Apostles. I also and especially mean the continuity between the Petrine and Pauline charisms in the Church.

Peter, the uneducated fisherman, represents the ordinary believer being faithful to what he knows. That is why the chief function of the papacy is not to innovate but to conserve: conservation takes less learning, if more humility, than innovation. But what the Peters thereby know is too limited just by itself. In Acts, for example, it is clear that Peter needed a good deal of prodding to accept the idea that Gentile converts to Christ did not have to become Jews in any recognizable sense. He was given a vision in the house of Cornelius; more painfully, he needed to be upbraided by Paul for backsliding on table fellowship with the non-kosher. In the end he was brought along, even as his leadership was never questioned in principle.

Paul, on the other hand, was the educated Pharisee. Lacking the advantage of having known Jesus in the flesh, he persecuted the Church zealously at first, and had to have a vision of the Lord to blind him to what he thought he knew before he could open his eyes to Truth. But once in possession of that Truth, he saw its implications with greater range and clarity than his apostolic colleagues. It took the first "council", with Peter presiding even over James at Jerusalem, to vindicate Paul's vision of God's call to the Gentiles. His theology was much more elaborate and thoughtful than Peter's even though the Gospel he preached was the same as Peter's. In due course they could die as brothers at the hands of the Romans, not long after James had been killed by the local Jewish tetrarch.

The story of Peter and Paul is rich fare for meditation. It tells us, among other things, that we need both the conservatives and the visionaries. That's because the faith-once-delivered shows its full integrity and scope in how our understanding of it develops. We must see the unfolding of revelation recorded in Scripture as continuous, just as the authentic development of doctrine and tradition generally since than has been continuous. That is important to recognize in every age of turmoil and growth. It is especially important today.

Most readers of this blog have become familiar with the concept of "the hermeneutic of continuity," and with my advocacy of that theological program. As a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger was one of its primary exponents. He very much remains so as pope. Apparently, the HC has become such a priority with the Vatican that even the Pope's choice of liturgical vestments is touted as a way to reiterate it. Check out this story.

This is another one of those cases when a fashion statement is not just a fashion statement. Actually, it is an anti-fashion statement. The fashion being countered by the papal fashion statement is of course the hermeneutic of discontinuity. As I've often pointed out, the HD is alive and well on both the left and the right in the Church. One can even observe trads and progs, in support of the HD, quoting each other's accounts of Vatican II and its aims--for completely opposite purposes, of course. Each side of the HD has its own reasons for depicting the Council as a sharp break with the Church of the past: the trads criticize the "post-concilar Church" as having thrown off too much of the past; the progs criticize the "post-conciliar Church" as not having thrown off enough of the past.

It's a pleasure to see the Pope's wardrobe saying that both are wrong. And why not? He does sit over the bones.
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